Russian-Ukrainian Conflict: Simplified.

By Robbie Estrada

The US has obtained intelligence that indicates orders have been sent to Russian commanders to proceed with an attack on Ukraine.

The intelligence regarding the order to tactical commanders and intelligence operatives is one of many indicators the US is watching to assess if Russian preparations for war have entered their final stages. Intelligence sources cautioned that orders can always be withdrawn or that it could be misinformation meant to confuse and mislead the US and its allies.

The news of this intelligence comes days after President Biden said on Friday that he believes Putin has “made the decision” to invade Ukraine, a comment echoed by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Russia has been tightening its military grip around Ukraine since last year, amassing tens of thousands of troops and equipment around the country’s border. The escalation in the years-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine has triggered the greatest security crisis on the continent since the Cold War, raising the spectre of a dangerous showdown between the United States and Russia.

Russia currently has roughly 75% of its conventional forces deployed against Ukraine, and Finland’s President sees the current situation as “colder” than during the Cold War.

But how did we get here? Here’s a quick breakdown.

What’s the situation on the border?

Today, over 150,000 Russian troops are on Ukraine’s border, according to estimates from American and Ukrainian intelligence officials. The troops encircle Ukraine like a horseshoe on three sides.

On Tuesday, Putin claimed that he was pulling several troops back to base after completing drills and was open to a diplomatic route out of the standoff. Western officials were skeptical and frustrated by this claim, as American intelligence officials alleged that rather than pulling troops back, Russia was quietly mobilizing thousands more. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cautioned that America had seen no immediate sign of a Russian military pullback, noting, “Unfortunately, there’s a difference between what Russia says and what it does.”

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is an intergovernmental military alliance between 27 European countries, 2 North American countries, and 1 Eurasian country. NATO was founded in 1949 to act as a deterrent to the threat of Soviet expansion in Europe after World War II. The organization has raised the readiness of its rapid response force as member countries place troops on standby and deploy battalions, planes, and ships to countries neighbouring Ukraine. The US recently ordered 3,000 additional soldiers to be deployed to Poland, bringing the total number of reinforcements sent to Europe in recent weeks to 5,000. The US has stated it has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine, which is not a part of NATO.

President Biden and European leaders alike have warned that Russia would suffer serious consequences if Putin decides to invade Ukraine. This threat has not stopped Russia from continuing to bolster its military positions. In late 2021 and early 2022, satellite images revealed new Russian deployments of troops, tanks, artillery, and other equipment cropping up in multiple locations, including near eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Belarus, where its forces were participating in military drills. Despite receiving funding, training, and equipment from the United States and other NATO member countries, experts believe Ukraine would be significantly outnumbered by Russia’s military, which has been modernized under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Should an all-out war break out between the two nations, ten of thousands of civilians could die and up to 5 million people could be made refugees, according to some estimates.

What has set the stage for the conflict?

Ukraine was a cornerstone of the Soviet Union until it voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, a milestone that turned out to be a fatal blow to the increasingly powerless Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO pushed eastward, welcoming Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 2004, three countries that had been a part of the Soviet Union. Four years later, it declared its intention to offer membership to Ukraine in the future, crossing a red line for Russia. Putin has indicated that he sees NATO’s expansion as an existential threat, and called the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO a “hostile act.” Putin has previously mentioned that he believes Ukraine is part of Russia culturally, linguistically, and politically. In an article penned in July 2021, Putin underlined their shared history, describing Russians and Ukrainians as “one people.”

Ukrainians have pushed back against Putin’s notion and have attempted to align more closely with Western institutions, like NATO, in the past few decades. In early 2014, there were large protests that forced a Russia-friendly president out of office after he refused to sign a European Union association agreement. The event, called the Ukrainian Revolution or The Revolution of Dignity, involved a series of violent incidents involving protesters, riot police, and unknown shooters in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, that culminated in the ousting of elected President Viktor Yanukovych and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Click here to view pictures of the Revolution.

Russia responded to the Revolution by taking over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and fomented a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, which resulted in Russia taking control of part of Ukraine’s Donbass region. Despite an agreement to stop the war in 2015, the two nations have not seen a stable peace. Since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014, nearly 14,000 people have died, and there are 1.5 million people internally displaced in Ukraine, per the Ukrainian government.

What is Putin’s Goal?

Putin has successfully increased pressure on the West for several months, without ever firing a shot or rolling a tank across its border with Ukraine. Russia has been accused of using cyberattacks and propaganda to increase tension. The United States State Department claimed earlier this month that Russia was prepared to create “a pretext for an invasion” through a false flag operation. Russia’s goals remain a mystery, but Putin has made clear that he views NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to Russia. In December, the Russian President presented NATO and the US with a list of security demands. Two items high on the list were a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO and a promise that the alliance rolls back its military footprint in Eastern and Central Europe. The US and its allies have mentioned numerous times that these demands will never come to fruition.

Russia is opposed to Ukraine joining NATO because the resurgent nation is trying to maintain power and influence in the region, and if Ukraine becomes a part of NATO, it would become too well protected to be a wanted Russian target. Putin is not interested in holding lengthy negotiations on Russia’s list of demands, saying “It is you who must give us guarantees, and you must do it immediately, right now,” at his annual news conference last year. “Are we deploying missiles near the US border? No, we are not. It is the United States that has come to our home with its missiles and is already standing at our doorstep.”

Russia and Ukraine remain at odds over key elements of the peace deal that was inked in 2015 to stop war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently mentioned he did not like any aspects of the peace deal, which requires dialogue on local elections in two Russian-backed regions in Ukraine and would also restore the Ukrainian government’s control over its eastern borders. Critics mention the agreement may give Russia unwarranted and excessive power over Ukrainian politics.

Putin responded by saying that regardless of whether Zelensky favours the plan or not, it must be implemented. “Like it or don’t like it, it’s your duty, my beauty,” Putin said in a news conference alongside French President Emmanuel Macron. Zelensky won Ukraine’s 2019 election in a landslide on promises to end the war in Donbass, but little has changed. Zelensky responded to a question about Putin’s stark and undiplomatic remark by saying “we are not his”.

What is Ukraine’s View?

“We are doing our best to defend our interests and have gained the diplomatic support of nearly all the leaders of the civilized world,”

Volodymyr Zelensky

President Zelensky has repeatedly downplayed the danger of a Russian invasion, stating that the threat has pervaded for years, and has become no greater in recent months. Ukrainians in Kyiv have a similar mindset, as people there continue to live their lives normally, despite international warnings and foreign governments withdrawing their diplomatic staff from the capital.

The Ukrainian government has insisted that Russia cannot prevent Ukraine from building a better relationship with NATO or interfere in its politics. “Russia cannot stop Ukraine from getting closer with NATO and has no right to have any say in relevant discussions,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement to CNN.

The threat of a Russian invasion is one of the many challenges Zelensky’s government has had to navigate since taking office in 2019. His government has not been particularly popular amid multiple political challenges nationwide, including a recent third wave of COVID-19 infections and a struggling economy. Many Ukrainians are unhappy with Zelensky’s administration because it has failed to deliver on the promises it campaigned on, which include working to fix the country’s corrupt judicial system. However, a more pressing concern is Zelensky’s failure thus far to bring peace to the nation’s east.

Amid warnings from Western leaders, including President Biden, of a Russian invasion “any day”, Zelensky declared February 16th a National Day of Unity, insisting that Ukraine was not intimidated by “any enemies” and would be able to “defend itself.”

“We are doing our best to defend our interests and have gained the diplomatic support of nearly all the leaders of the civilized world,” Zelensky said in a video address, adding, “The security of Europe and the whole continent depends on Ukraine and our army.”